Auto Club 400
March 13, 2019
By Micah Roberts
Sign up to receive daily news from VegasInsider
Sunday's Auto Club 400 on Auto Club Speedway's 2-mile layout in Fontana, California will end NASCAR's three-race West Coast swing. It'll be the fifth race of the season and the race package they'll be using with aero ducts and 550 horsepower that was used at Las Vegas, which is a good handicapping starting point. They used a similar package at Atlanta without the aero-ducts, but the Atlanta results might be just as telling because of the asphalt.
“Auto Club Speedway is by far one of my favorite tracks we go to," said Kevin Harvick who won there in 2011. "It’s top three on my list as far as tracks that I’m excited to go to, just for the fact that the asphalt is so worn out. It is very similar to Atlanta in a much different shape of a racetrack.
"The crowd has been great over the last few years since we went from two races down to one. It has changed the whole vibe at Auto Club Speedway. It’s in my home state. It’s a big week and I know, from a driver standpoint, Auto Club Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway are right up there at the top of everybody’s list because there is so much falloff and the asphalt is so worn out.”
Are Fontana and Atlanta all that similar as Harvick suggests?
“I don’t know," said Kyle Larson, who also hails from California. "Auto Club is a totally different race track. It’s a worn-out surface, but it doesn’t race anything like Atlanta. Nothing really does. Atlanta is so unique. So, I don’t know. But, it’s been a place where I’ve ran well and I think the bigger the track, the more worn out it is, seems to suit me. So, I would hope that we can go there and be strong. We’re going to learn each and every week and get better every week, too. So, we’ll see how it goes.”
Larson and Harvick are both basically saying the same thing. Tires are going to be an issue this weekend like Atlanta.
Larson is going to be one of those drivers to watch closely this weekend during practices and one that you might want to include in your betting strategy because of his past history at Fontana and also what he did at Atlanta last month leading a race-high 142 laps. He finished 12th due to being penalized for speeding on pit road. However, he managed his tires very well.
Larson has some nice history at Fontana, which includes one of his four career Cup wins. His first Cup start there in 2014 saw him finish second. He won in 2017 and was second last season. He's also got two wins at Fontana's 2-mile sister track in Michigan. And for good measure to show how much he likes Fontana, he's also has won two Xfinity races there.
A Chevrolet has to step up at some point, right? NASCAR's new era of parity this season with the new package has produced four different winners in four races between two different organizations and two different manufacturers. Chip Ganassi Racing has looked the best so far for Chevrolet, especially Larson's teammate Kurt Busch who is one of three drivers to have top-five finishes between the two 1.5-mile tracks at Atlanta and Las Vegas.
And speaking of the elder Busch brother, he's been very good at Fontana at all stages of his career and he's 20-to-1 to win. In 2002, he finished second in perhaps the greatest duel ever at Fontana. The next season Busch won and he's averaged a 12th-place finish in 25 Cup starts and he's also got a Truck series trophy there in 2000.
Kyle Busch won his first career Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in 2005 as a rookie and between the three touring NASCAR Series, he's accumulated 199 career wins. What are his chances of winning No. 200 this weekend?
“I’d assess it is pretty good, I guess," said Busch. "It would certainly be nice to get it done on the West Coast swing, but it’s not a necessity. It will happen when it happens and you can’t push too hard and do stupid things or make mistakes in order to think too much about that number. You just have to let the race kind of play out and let it come to you and we’ll see where we are at. Really looking forward to Fontana, it’s been a great place for me over the years and would love to get the Interstate Batteries Toyota back to victory lane there again no matter what number win it ends up being.”
Kyle has been better than his brother at Fontana with three Cup wins in 20 starts while averaging a 10th-place average. He also has six Xfinity Series wins and two Truck Series wins there. He was sixth at Atlanta and then third at Las Vegas. He had a speeding penalty on pit road that kept him from being the likely winner at Las Vegas. Busch won at Phoenix last week and he gets greedy with wins after tasting victory. He's gone back-to-back Cup races with wins multiple times in his career including three straight, twice.
At this stage last season it was Harvick that was riding a three-race win streak. He finished 35th to end the incredible run, but he's been really good on his home track. But what makes him the Westgate SuperBook's 9/2 co-favorite with Kyle Busch is what he did at Atlanta and Las Vegas. He finished fourth-place in each leading 45 laps at Atlanta and a race-high 88 laps at Las Vegas.
It's hard betting the favorites even though knowing they're the best, but taking long shots to win at Fontana has been a bad investment over the years with most being elite drivers winning. In 2002, the 25-to-1 long shot winner was a rookie named Jimmie Johnson. It was his first career win and it was impressive how he outraced Kurt Busch for the win. He's racked up a track record six wins since then, the other five coming at 7-to-1 or less.
But when looking at the odds board, I always want to make a case for a couple of drivers at 50-to-1 or higher based on seeing a few signs they're capable of running with the lite. How about Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (50/1) with a revived Roush Fenway Racing program excelling with the new package.
“Auto Club is a rough two-mile track and is different than any track we’ve raced at so far this season," Stenhouse said. "We had a strong weekend at Las Vegas with the new package so I’m looking for that to translate to this weekend. We’ve been showing up each weekend with fast cars as soon as we roll them off the truck. Last year, we had a loose wheel which caused us a decent finish so if we can execute on pit-road and keep dialing our Fastenal Ford in, I’m certain we will end this west coast swing on a strong note.”
The confidence of a driver is always nice to hear when betting. But the substance and cause for a wager is his sixth-place finish at Las Vegas three weeks ago.
Another longshot I expect to run well is Austin Dillon because they're using the same package they tested in the preseason at Las Vegas that was fast in all three sessions. And then he was fast at Las Vegas three weeks ago but finished 21st after getting a penalty putting him a lap down that he could never recover from with no cautions other than between stages. His 10th-place finish at Fontana last season was a career-best and he won a 2016 Xfinity Series race there as well.
Dillon is 80-to-1 to win this week so take away the money from just one of your expected beers purchased on the Las Vegas strip -- about $9 -- and throw it on an option that has a legitimate shot to cash. And then take the rest of your allotted beer money and head over to the Stage Door Casino (across from Bally's) or Casino Royale (next to Harrah's) to get the most beer bang for your buck. If he doesn't win, at least you have a souvenir for him to sign someday and you have also saved a couple $20 spots on beer. It's a win-win situation!
Atlanta and Las Vegas are the focal points to review more so than past history at Fontana, and it's important to note that a Penske Mustang won both of those in the past month. But in each case, they didn't qualify well and took over the race late and took advantage of mistakes made by cars almost as good as theirs. Or at least that's the way I see it.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #42 Kyle Larson (8/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (9/2)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (9/2)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (7/1)
5) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (7/1)